I was on the hunt for war paint. The salon was small and empty and decorated in Christmas lights. The woman inside nodded and said hello and when I said manicure? she said pick a color. I looked at a wall of polish, waiting for the brightest shade to appear. I chose “Tomorrow’s Red” and the woman told me to head up a tiny, narrow staircase. Upstairs, holiday music and more Christmas lights greeted me. I placed the polish down at an older manicurist’s station. We were alone.
Four days before the Christmas party, while having dinner with a friend, I found out that my ex-boyfriend had a new girlfriend. Immediately, I pictured them flirting in the twinkling light of the party, like he and I had one year ago. How long after we broke up had they gotten together? I was too afraid to ask.
He had broken up with me six months prior; we had dated for five months. I should have been fine, but I wasn’t. Who was this new girl? Before this revelation, I had started to feel better about myself: I was finally gaining momentum, even dating again, but this news smacked me with unexpected force. The Christmas party, thrown by mutual friends, was the same gathering I met him at a year before. I had already planned on attending it with all of the stops pulled—I knew he’d be there, and I wanted him to see me in my newfound confidence, to see me in a new light, to want me. No, this development—this new girlfriend—took it to a new level. I would have to be bold.
Two days later, I left work when it was already dark; the Boston sun had been gone for hours and with it all the heat of the world. I almost never splurged on things like manicures, but I planned to find the slickest, boldest, blood-red. It would mirror the red on my lips and pop against the black of my dress. He’d have to look. His eyes would take in all of me and he’d see a woman with power. I was going to curl my hair and wear those shiny heels, but the nails—the nails would draw everything together. They were both armor and weapon.
As the manicurist began filing my nails, I tried to tell her about the emergency vehicles with flashing lights at the train station I just passed—something must be happening. She barely responded, focused on her work. So I stared out of the frost-edged window and wondered about my unease, about whether it was normal for a woman living in the city to linger on sirens in the streets. Was everyone else deadened to these things after a while? I watched as the woman massaged my hands and skillfully painted my nails. Her fingers were hardened and dry, the tips nicked with polish like a painter’s. Most of her bare nails were trimmed short; she used the longer ones to scrape excess polish away from the edges of my cuticles. I flinched once, and we exchanged glances. For how long have women been paying for this service, this intimacy? And why do we do it in the first place?
Nail polish was my first art medium. I used to paint old keys, rocks, the cover of my journal—anything but my fingernails—because I attended Catholic school and it was forbidden. Ever since I was very young it seemed to hold a power I couldn’t fully grasp. Painted nails were a mixture of rebellion and refinery, a feature women manipulate to their will. And for who? The only people who had commented on my nails were other women. Not men. And certainly not this ex-boyfriend of mine.
I tried not to think about why I was doing this, about how lost I’d been this entire year—how much I was ready for it to be over and to start anew. My sense of identity was muddled, shaken. It didn’t help that when he broke up with me all those months ago there was no concrete reason. Just a lot of it’s not you it’s me, I need to be alone. Yet here he was, coupled again.
It was a relationship I had stayed in just to have one. I stayed to distract myself from my failed attempts to get a full-time job. I was sick of being single, and so I ignored all the signs that he was a bad match. A month after we broke up, I stopped looking for full-time work and started waitressing again, at a Mexican restaurant a few blocks from where I lived, to supplement my part-time day job. I desperately wanted to be a respectable young professional in Boston. I wanted to be proud of myself. I wanted to be worthy. I was twenty-six. I’d just thought I’d be further along by then.
There, the manicurist said, and genuinely smiled when I looked up at her. I smiled back and held my fingers out, watched them glint against the rainbow lights. They were the classic shade of scarlet red, a signal of vitality. We walked over to the chair where I dropped my purse and jacket, and I was glad I’d already paid her—it was her suggestion to do so before my nails got wet. She picked up my coat and held it out, motioning that she’d help put it on. I looped my arms through and felt instantly warm, the silky material of my jacket heating up with my touch. I looked down as she bent over and connected the zipper near my knees. She gently closed the coat around me, zipping all the way up to my chin. For a second, I felt like a child again, and as she grabbed the belt strap and tied it into a knot, I let out a sigh I didn’t know I was holding in.
Lauren Rheaume is a writer and the HR & Operations Manager at GrubStreet in Boston, Massachusetts. She's a student in the inaugural Essay Incubator program. You can find her online at the handle @laurenxelissa. This is her first publication.